On the eve of the 35th annual Bassmaster Classic, a reporter from BASS Times sat down with the man from Pintlala. We wanted to get Ray Scott's take on "how we got from there to here," from a handful of fishermen and newspaper writers standing on the banks of Lake Mead in 1971 to the upcoming CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, which will be seen by thousands and thousands of fishing fans worldwide on ESPN later this month.
The growth of the Classic has been nothing short of phenomenal. It sprang from the fertile and adventurous mind of Scott, who nurtured it from humble beginnings to the granddaddy of all outdoor sporting events.
Scott watched his brainchild gradually transform recreational fishing into a multibillion-dollar industry. He watched as bass fishing created heroes and high rollers. Through it all, he experienced the highs and lows of this sport, the good times and bad. Yet he remains extremely upbeat about the future of bass fishing.
What follows are Ray Scott's impressions of the Classic from past to present.
The early years
First, we asked Scott how he came up with the name "Classic," which today has become synonymous with the season ending championship of virtually every fishing circuit on the planet, both saltwater and freshwater. It's even been borrowed by hunting organizations.
"The name just came out of my head. I don't remember how I came up with it. The word 'classic' is supposed to indicate a superlative in whatever it is. It's one of the more special occasions of an upper category.
"It came out of my head like a lot of things do. I didn't have any grand scheme to try to calculate a name. And frankly, nobody's ever asked. Like everything else I've done; if it's good, they copy it. If it's not, they let me take the hit and keep moving."
Most BASS members know that the first Classic was held at Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas in 1971. What many might not know is what actually spawned the event.
"The whole idea was born out of the frustrations of not having good coverage from the media," Scott recalled.
"In those days in 1970, Bob Cobb [the original editor of Bassmaster Magazine] and I were driving to a tackle show. It was August, and in the frustration of talking, I said, 'Why don't we have a tournament that takes the top performers of the year and put it on at the end of the season and invite the press and tell them they'll get to ride with the pros?'
"I decided that we would announce it at the end of the season, which would have been about October. We told the guys that next year we'd have this year-end deal. Bob said, 'Where are we going to have it?' I told him we would not tell anybody. We'd say it was a secret. We'd make them guess, and then when the time came, we'd figure out where to take them.
"I thought the sooner we know where it's going to be, the easier it's going to be for the secret to leak out. We wanted it to be a mystery and create a little intrigue about it."
That led to the birth of the early so-called "mystery" Classics in which the pros, wives and media were not told of the Classic site until they were in the air and on their way to the event. Although the weigh-in crowds closely resembled that of a weekly wildcat contest, the first Classic was a success in Scott's eyes.
"History was made that moment," he said.
"My objective was satisfied, because I wanted to let the press know that we were not a bunch of redneck crooks with a pocketful of lead pipes. This was a highly legitimate thing. We had the top media in the group. And it was like a breakthrough. Once we got those heavyweights in there and they saw that the BASS boys were okay, it kicked the door open. The press' support was a great support to the brand."
When we asked Scott to name his most memorable Classic, he offered a surprising and rather somber answer.
"They were all memorable," he replied.
"But one that stands out was the third Classic at Clarks Hill because of a couple of things that happened. I caught a guy cheating. Fish in a basket. I put out a news release telling what he had done. He was guilty as hell, and he knew it. But it was just a fluke that I caught him.
"And then, tragically, we had a guy get killed. One of our sponsors was thrown out of a boat, and the prop killed him. His name was Vernon Fowlkes, and he was from Tulsa. He was going fishing with a guide, and the steering cable broke and he flipped out of [the boat]. Another guide had [country singer] Roy Clark and Carl Lowrance, and they saw the accident. They pulled the body out of the river.
"That is a horrible nightmare memory. It was a tragedy I'll never get over."
The turning point
Scott pointed out that the evolutionary process of the Classic has been so slow that we often don't realize the significance of certain milestones along the way. That's likely the case of the 1981 Classic held in Montgomery, Ala., which was won by 21-year-old Stanley Mitchell. That was the first Classic weigh-in held indoors and an event that kicked the world championship into overdrive.
"The reason I did that was to take out the variable of storms, rain, hurricanes and the like. By then we were getting into television somewhat. That was probably the hallmark. That was probably one of the most important moves we made. In Montgomery, we filled up the coliseum. And it just grew from there.
"Some of my most memorable Classics were those big ones we did back in the days when we were filling up auditoriums with 15,000 or 20,000 people. They were special. We had a center stage kind of thing, and the crowds were roaring. I certainly don't say this with any tone of criticism, but they haven't had that recently in my opinion."
One of the most remarkable advancements in Classic history occurred last year in Charlotte when ESPN Outdoors devoted an unprecedented 11 1/2 hours of coverage to Classic XXXIV.
"We hardly got any television in the early days," Scott noted.
"Maybe some local thing, but nothing like ESPN. I never dreamt it. I get the question almost every day about whether I ever in my wildest dreams thought it would get this big.
"I would love to say this was my master plan. But the truth is, I was so busy living the moment and trying to get to Monday without going broke that I could never have dreamed that big. It was just so damn tough. I had so many angels that helped me along the way.
"It's just like anything else — if you do it well and it's attractive and colorful, people are swept into the curiosity of it and a following develops. I set the foundation for it, and certainly, I thought [the Classic] was a class act in every case."
Memories of the first Classic
Ray Scott had no idea where to hold the first Classic after announcing it to the tournament anglers. Then he received a call from Dave Newton, a Las Vegas tourism official who was familiar with his fledgling tournament circuit. Newton wanted Scott to stage a tournament on Lake Mead. That phone call eventually led to the first Bassmaster Classic.
Scott's strategy for introducing anglers to tournament fishing and recruiting members for his new Bass Anglers Sportsman Society involved traveling the country in a Bluebird Wonderlodge bus and doing seminars with tournament director Harold Sharp and fishermen Roland Martin and John Powell. During a seminar stop in Las Vegas in the spring of 1971, Scott went to great lengths to keep Martin from fishing Lake Mead — to save the sanctity of his "mystery lake" concept for the Classic. "I wanted to have this tournament on a lake that was not familiar to anybody," he said.
One of the 24 anglers invited to participate in that first Classic was totally unimpressed. Florida's Johnny Adams stayed home because he didn't want to waste the vacation time from his job.
In the five years that Scott attempted to stage his mystery Classics, no one ever correctly guessed the tournament waters. "One of my secrets was that I didn't know where it was! I didn't formulize the location until somewhat closer to the event. That created problems, so I couldn't wait too long. But I don't recall that we had anybody outright guess the location."
The weigh-in for the inaugural Classic was held on the roof of a lakeside marina. "You can imagine that the crowds were small because nobody knew we were there until after we got there. There wasn't two school buses worth of people up there, and most of them were family and the people we brought along."
Scott credits the outdoors media with enabling the Classic to evolve into the world-class event that it is today. "I don't think that I ever had more support than what I got from the outdoor writers. They seemed to know that what I was doing was OK. I just don't ever remember getting criticized by them for what we were trying to do."